Capturing imaginations


When it comes to communicating Christian truth, illustrations are often considered to be decorative. They are added extras, definitely not essential. Stories can be dismissed as a poor substitute for hard logic.

Perhaps they’re considered a concentration break, or an added dash of emotion to spice up your gospel presentation. Mostly, stories and illustrations are thought of as a sideshow while the real business is to state truths as plainly as possible. This, of course, is not the way people tick, nor the way the Scriptures present truth.

The mind, after all, is not a debating chamber. It is far more like an IMAX cinema, and it works best in ultra-high definition with the surround sound turned up to 11. Thomas Cranmer’s account of human behaviour has been well summarised by Ashley Null: What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies. This is a good summary of Pauline – indeed of Biblical – anthropology. The mind does not come first. Actually, it comes at the end of a process where first hearts and lives are captured and only later do we rationalise our decisions. People are not computers, crunching data, we are heart-driven lovers giving ourselves to compelling visions (and, naturally, giving ourselves to unworthy visions). That’s how the Scriptures see things anyway. Think of how Paul describes his evangelistic mission: ‘(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;). Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:4-5, KJV).

Mission is spiritual warfare. It’s not the casting down of city walls with earthly weapons, it’s the casting down of ‘imaginations’ by the preaching of the gospel. The fortress in which people live is their imagination, that is, their framing of the world – the story they tell themselves about life. It’s this imagination that needs demolishing and a different framing of the world established.

Ever since Genesis 6 the Bible has spoken of the power of the imagination. By nature ‘every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually’ (Gen. 6:5, KJV). Notice how thoughts spring from the heart, and imaginations spring from those thoughts. We love certain things and by nature we love the wrong things or we love the right things in the wrong proportions. From these faulty loves flow faulty ways of thinking. When you add up all these ways of thinking you have a whole thought-world – an imagination. This is where we live. We consider it to be an IMAX cinema. We enjoy the show. But Paul says we’re trapped in this fortress and we’re keeping the truth out. The barriers need to come down. How?

Think of King David, after his appalling sexual greed, abuse and murder. He wasn’t immediately racked with guilt. He didn’t immediately pen Psalm 51. In fact he was in his own little world of self-justification and pride. That is until Nathan came to him wielding a mighty spiritual weapon: a story. In 2 Samuel 12 he spins David a yarn. But it proves the perfect vehicle for the truth. Nathan tells of a callous rich man stealing his neighbour’s sheep. It evokes the correct emotional response in David, then – plot twist – Nathan says to the king: ‘You are the man!’ That’s how to cast down an imagination. Fight fire with fire, fantasy with fantasy, story with story.

I’m sure that, prior to Nathan’s arrival, David thought he was living in the real world: the world of politics, warfare, lust, greed, and murderous schemes. In fact that world was a fantasy in which he imagined he could safely sin. But even as David was imprisoned in his own delusions the truth snuck into his palace dressed as a story. It was a fiction that awoke him to the facts.

Next time we will think of the stories our friends and family live by, and the better stories we can tell. But for now, let’s acknowledge the power of telling and retelling God’s story. It is captivating in the deepest sense: seizing people from the lies that imprison them and releasing them into the truth of Christ.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.

Speaking truth to power


JESUS AND THE LION’S DEN
ISBN 
978 1 784 984 335
NEHEMIAH: BUILDER FOR GOD
ISBN 
978 1 845 501 693
HEZEKIAH: THE KING’S CHOICES
ISBN 
978 1 781 919 736
TO DIE IS GAIN
ISBN 
978 1 527 105 300
VANYA: A TRUE STORY
ISBN 
978 0 884 190 097
FAMILY TIME
ISBN 
978 1 781 915 899

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act – or so said George Orwell.

John Knox said something similar: ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God’. Now both these quotes rang true to me this week as I sat in church singing Psalm 12: ‘You, Lord … will protect us forever from the wicked, who freely strut about when what is vile is honoured by the human race.’

Our children are increasingly going to need to be able to speak truth to power.

How do you start? God’s word is being challenged. Christians are struggling. The world is lurching from one disaster to the next…

Go to the Bible. God and His people have tackled this sort of thing before.

Daniel, for example. He was in a position of influence but he chose to honour God rather than those in power. The Good Book Company have an excellent edition of his life entitled Jesus and the Lion’s Den. I love how this book takes one of my favourite themes – Jesus Christ in all of Scripture – and illustrates it beautifully too.

The Christian Focus series – Bible Wise and Bible Time – have several characters who were faced with tyranny in one shape or another. Nehemiah: Builder for God and Hezekiah: The King’s Choices are two characters that don’t always get a lot of coverage in children’s Bible stories.

How about today? I’ve reviewed Do Great Things for God before, which explores the lives of Christian women – one of the characters in this set is Corrie ten Boom. She is an excellent example of someone who stood firm for Christ in the face of fear and adversity.

For teens, John and Betty Stam feature in the Christian Focus trailblazer series. To Die is Gain shows two individuals who stood up for Christ while knowing full well what the risks were.

For older teens, if they are able to read something emotionally difficult, I’d recommend Vanya: A True Story by Myrna Grant, published by Creation House. This is available on Kindle and covers the persecution of a Soviet soldier in the 1970s. Ivan Moiseyev was originally from Moldova and part of the underground church before he was drafted into the Soviet army and tortured for his faith. As I said, it’s not an easy read. Growing up in the 1980s this book had a huge impact on my own Christian faith. We need to face up to the reality of what our sinful world does when rebelling against the LORD.

In uncertain times we must cling to the certainty of God. Let’s challenge ourselves to start a God routine where each morning or before you go to bed at night you read God’s word and pray. My parents did family worship with us as kids and it is something that only needs five minutes start to finish. Dip your toe in the water with Family Time by Andrew Brannigan.

Catherine MacKenzie

Catherine MacKenzie, Children’s Editor for Christian Focus Publications

Christian? Like sleep, TV or animals? Bo-or-ring!


A recent research project by the University of Essex has claimed to have identified the most boring jobs and hobbies in the world.

The five most boring jobs are: Data Analysis, Accounting, Insurance, Cleaning and Banking. The five most boring hobbies are: Sleeping, Religion, Watching Television, Observing Animals and Maths.

It will be no surprise to Christians living in our secular post-Christian context that our friends and neighbours consider our faith to be boring. We might be mildly offended and insist that the worship of the true and living God is anything but boring. We might try to claim that true Christianity is not a religion, in the sense of observing rules and performing rituals to earn favour with God, but a joyful response to God’s amazing grace in Christ.

Counting bricks

However, we all know that church can sometimes be boring, and the observance of seemingly pointless rules and meaningless rituals is at the very least tedious. Much public Christianity – whether in school assemblies, at public occasions, or on ‘Thought for The Day’ – is truly mind-numbing. I remember attending a liberal church as a child and regularly resorting to counting the layers of bricks in the wall to pass the interminable time.

How should we respond to the fact that our culture regards our religion as boring? One mistake the church has regularly made is to try to make its faith more attractive by appropriating the categories of secular entertainment. Paul addressed this challenge in Corinth, where he refused to adopt the entertaining rhetoric of Greek culture and instead chose to preach the ‘foolish’ message of the cross, trusting that the Holy Spirit would reveal its true wisdom to those who heard.

Whilst there is no excuse for church ever to be done badly, it is ultimately self-defeating to think that we can achieve relevance and interest just by adopting the style of the most popular game shows. Preachers-turned-comics may draw a crowd for a while, but quickly feel dated. The church’s attempts to be in touch with the culture are usually at least ten years behind the times, and probably contribute to the impression of boredom.

Not boring but essential

Rather than attempting to meet the expectation of the culture, we need to have a firm confidence in the enduring truth, relevance and power of the gospel. Church will indeed seem boring to those who reject Christ, for whom the logically consistent alternative is to ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’. We can never offer unbelievers something better than this. What we have to offer is authenticity and true hope in the face of the very real sufferings of life. Despite the negative perception they might have, the jobs that are identified as boring are in fact essential, and there will be times in life when we urgently need them. They won’t seem boring then.

The gospel does not need to be made interesting or relevant, but we need to be patient and wait for the times in life when people need what it has to offer. We must be authentic and consistent in our living and speaking so that when unbelievers do choose to come amongst us, drawn by the Spirit, they hear the prophetic and convicting word of God and recognise that ‘God is really amongst you’.

Discernment is required

One characteristic that made these hobbies seem boring to outsiders was that those who engaged in them kept speaking about them. Unduly persistent personal evangelism can confirm people in their stereotypical assumptions. Whilst we need to make the most of every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with others, this does not mean that we need to be always speaking of Jesus, nor attempting to turn every conversation we have to the gospel. This will make us unwelcome bores. We need to exercise great discernment, as there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. In the New Testament the primary pattern for church members is to speak reactively as our good lives, and the hope that we have in face of suffering, prompt questions that demand a gospel answer.

So, let’s not be ashamed of the gospel because the world thinks that we are boring, nor change it to try to overcome their prejudices. Rather let’s have confidence that it alone is the power to save from the coming wrath – and this is not boring at all.

John Stevens

John Stevens is National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).

When your obedience condemns you


An exclusive extract from Dane Ortlund’s new book, Surprised By Jesus: Subversive Grace in the Four Gospels

‘Guilt is not the obstacle to grace, as moralism supposes. On the contrary, it is the repression of guilt, self-justification, genuine self-righteousness and smugness which is the obstacle,’ writes French psychologist Paul Tournier in Guilt and Grace: A Psychological Study (1962).

The deepest distinction among human beings is not between the bad and the good, but between those who know they are bad and those who do not. Yet, strangely, it is not the blatantly wicked who have the greatest difficulty seeing this, but the carefully obedient.

The strange key to participation in the joys of God’s kingdom is not qualifying ourselves for it, but frankly acknowledging our disqualification – a disqualification that manifests itself not only in rule-breaking, but also in rule-keeping. Keeping the rules no more extinguishes the sin in our hearts than buckets of gasoline extinguish the flames in our fireplace.

Heaven is not won with obedience. It is given. Let’s consider an encounter a rich, young man has with Jesus…

‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ (Matt. 19:16).

Here is a man who has been able to pay for everything in life with money – can’t he also pay his way into eternal life with obedience?

Yet it’s hard to get the right answer when you ask the wrong question. For right from the start we notice that this young man has not yet learned what Tournier has reminded us of: the question is not ‘Who will make the cut and be righteous?’ but ‘Who will admit that he can never make the cut?’ A high-school freshman [first-year student] doesn’t ask what blood type he is required to have in order to qualify for the football team; there is no right answer because the very question betrays a misunderstanding of what it takes in order to be on the team. Blood type is important, but irrelevant to gaining access to the football team. Obedience is important, but irrelevant to gaining access to eternal life.

Still, Jesus plays along and He said to him: ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said: ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself ’ (Matt. 19:17-19).

Upon close scrutiny, we see that Jesus has omitted the Tenth Commandment. Why would Jesus leave this one off the list?

Jesus has bypassed this commandment for the same reason that it is the sole commandment mentioned by Paul in Romans 7 as having aroused sin within him: it is the one commandment that addresses the heart. Murder, adultery, theft, and the others, are all observable sins. Coveting is a sin of the heart. It is internal, invisible.

Jesus has put before the rich young man all the commandments that are, at first glance, externally manageable.

Exposing our idols

Consequently, the young man replies with confidence: ‘All these I have kept.’ He checks off each in turn. Yet the question remains: ‘What do I still lack?’ Even upon such brazen moral optimism, the young man knows something is not right.

Jesus said to him: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matt. 19:21-22).

With Jesus’ climactic exhortation to renounce all in order to follow Him, he was not dangling the carrot of law-keeping in front of this young man, egging him on in his self-justifying law-observance. Instead Jesus has lovingly set up the young man to show him his idolatry. Jesus has slipped in the First Commandment (‘You shall have no other gods before me’, Exodus 20:3) without the young man noticing. He exposes the man’s sin not by showing him that he needed to give away his material possessions to follow God, but that his material possessions were his god. And as Martin Luther has pointed out in A Treatise on Good Works, there is no breaking of commandments numbers two to ten without first breaking commandment number one.

In view of how seriously this young man took his morality, it is safe to assume that he paid the appropriate Jewish tithes. But Jesus calls him to give away all that he owned because mere tithing allows a materialist to keep his idol basically intact. Jesus goes straight to the core of the young man’s deepest affection: his financial security. His heart is exposed. And, sadly, like a child suffering from an irritating rash who prefers scratching to a healing steroid, the young man prefers the idol – and goes away sorrowful.

The eye of a needle

Why are the disciples so troubled by the metaphor Jesus uses as his summary? It’s puzzling at first to modern readers why they should be so flabbergasted. If it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, then isn’t the solution simply to avoid wealth? Why don’t the disciples simply resolve to live in either the lower or middle class of society?

The reason is that this was not how life worked for the first-century Jew. Financial gain was seen as a direct sign of God’s approval. It was axiomatic that ‘The blessing of the Lord makes rich’ (Prov. 10:22). Material blessing was viewed as linked to spiritual blessing (Deut. 28:1-6, 8, 11-12). When the disciples ask, ‘Who then can be saved?’ they are saying, ‘If those at the top of the social stratosphere, upon whom God has so clearly smiled, can’t get in, what hope is there for the rest of us, who don’t have that kind of obvious divine favour?’

Jesus responds enigmatically, affirming their dismay before rebuilding hope on the proper foundation: ‘But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’’ (Matt. 19:26). ‘It’s worse than you think,’ says Jesus – ‘and so much better.’ According to your intuitive, natural, moralising, domesticated, get-what-you-work-for understanding of the way you think God relates to people, yes, this is impossible. But with God – according to the wild, lavish, all out of proportion, get-far-more-than-you-asked-for-as-long-as-you-don’t-try-to-pay-for-it understanding of the way God relates to His people, all things are possible.

This is an extract from Surprised by Jesus, a just-published new book by the bestselling author Dane Ortlund. In this vital exploration of the character of Jesus, Ortlund leads us further into the rescuing power of God’s grace. Available now.

Dane Ortlund

Tub-thumping Praise!


MY SOUL WILL WAIT (Psalm 62)
from the album Unchanging God: songs from
the book of Psalms
by Sovereign Grace Music

It seems as though our culture has no shortage of things to protest about, be it the disaster of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Black Lives Matter, Covid-19… the list could go on.

But if you call yourself a Christian, you are, in a sense, a member of perhaps the longest-standing protest movement in human history. And where other movements have sung We Shall Overcome or Give Peace a Chance, we have sung the Psalms.

My Soul Will Wait, the leading release from Sovereign Grace’s 2022 album Unchanging God: songs from the book of Psalms, is inspired by Psalm 62. In this psalm, David sings to his attackers in open defiance, filled with an irrepressible trust in God. While this song is by no means a perfect paraphrase, writers Keaton Bunting and Bob Kauflin have really captured David’s spirit, both in their lyrical content, managing to be confident without being superficially triumphalist, and also in their musical setting, which features a tub-thumping chorus which you can easily imagine a football-esque crowd tanking out at the top of their lungs.

Protest songs

The church this side of heaven has always needed protest songs. We join with the Protestant Huguenots riling up the French authorities by singing metrical psalms in prison, or crowds of thousands singing psalms at St Paul’s Cross in London in the turmoil of the English Reformation, or Paul and Silas singing hymns (most likely psalms) in the Philippian jail (see Acts 16).

We protest the narrative that the church of Christ is doomed to obscurity; we protest the narrative that death is the end and that all prior suffering is meaningless; we protest the idea that the only people who matter are those who hold the reins of power. The church needs more protest songs. I pray that Sovereign Grace’s latest offering might unite your voices and stir your hearts.

Matt MacGregor

Matt MacGregor is the director of music at St Andrew the Great Church, Cambridge.

A Mohawk called Molly


When Jonathan Edwards was ministering at Stockbridge, he encouraged his son, the future theologian-pastor Jonathan Edwards, Jr., to spend time learning the culture and language of the Oneida.

The boy went with a missionary, Gideon Hawley, to an Oneida village at the head of the Susquehanna, about 200 miles away from his family. The young boy was here from April 1755 to mid-January 1756. What amazing confidence the senior Edwards and his wife Sarah must have had in a sovereign God to send their son into such a potentially dangerous place!

In the winter of 1756, the situation did indeed become too dangerous for the young Jonathan and Gideon to stay with the Oneida. War was engulfing the western frontier and the younger Edwards and Hawley trekked back to Fort Johnson, the fortified mansion of Sir William Johnson, now in present-day Amsterdam, New York. The young Edwards spent most of the winter there. The elder Edwards considered Johnson as ‘a man of not much religion’. What a contrast Johnson’s home would have been to the godly home in which the younger Edwards had been raised.

Johnson was a remarkable Irishman, who was born in 1715 and raised not far from Dublin. He had come to America at the age of 22. An extremely tall man, gargantuan in his day, Johnson was a resourceful businessman and went on to create a mini-empire of commerce in the Mohawk Valley. Key to this empire were his own brains and his third wife, a Mohawk by the name of Molly Brant, or Koñwatsi’ tsiaiéñni as she liked to be known. Her younger brother was Joseph Brant, well-known in Ontarian history. But Molly was actually much more powerful than her brother in her day, because Mohawk society was matriarchal and she was the wife of the one of the most powerful British land barons in that area of the New World.

I visited Fort Johnson in September 2005, as well as the larger fortress-mansion that Johnson built nearby and which today is called Johnson Hall. Visitors cannot help but be reminded of the turbulence of Jonathan Edwards’ world. Johnson himself was active in the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1755 to1760 and in which he saw action. He commanded forces at the important Battle of Lake George (1755), in which Edwards’ cousin Ephraim Williams was killed. The day that I visited, a display case at Fort Johnson held a book that was open to an account of Ephraim’s death.

Johnson’s empire, though, was not to last. He died in 1774. Two years later, his family, loyal to the British crown like Johnson, took the British side in the civil war that we know as the American Revolution. In the turbulence that followed, the entirety of the Johnson estates were confiscated by the American government, and all of his labours were brought to naught. James Thomas Flexner, author of a 1959 biography of Johnson, indulged in counter-factual history and wondered what would have happened if Johnson had lived. He suggested that Johnson might have secured the Mohawk Valley for the British and the course of the war might well have been quite different.

But Johnson did not have a role to play in the American Revolution, for he died in 1774. What a parable is his life of the folly of building kingdoms only for time and for this world. How different the empire-building, if it can be called that, of the two Jonathan Edwardses, both father and son. In their books and preaching they sought to spread the rule of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus, and as such they built for eternity.

One wonders if Molly Brant later acquired the faith that was absent in her husband’s life. After the American Revolution she went to live in Kingston, Ontario. There in the early 1790s, not long before her death in 1796 at the age of 60, an anonymous traveller saw her in the town’s Anglican Church and wrote this account: ‘In the Church at Kingston we saw an Indian woman, who sat in an honourable place among the English. She appeared very devout during divine service and very attentive to the Sermon.’

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Relearning the importance of touch


A few moons ago when we were studying theology, some of us wondered what relevance, other than historical curiosity and help with understanding Paul’s letters, Gnosticism had?

The rules of the world based on a philosophy which saw a disconnect between body and spirit, the physical and the spiritual, seemed a million miles away from our common-sense, Christian-saturated, Western society.

No more. As our societal elites have given up on Christianity, so the old Gnostic heresy has returned with a bang. We now live in a world where you cannot say what a woman is unless you are a biologist, and you will not say what a woman is if you are a biologist. The body doesn’t matter. What you feel is what you are.

The return of the plague to Western society has also shaken our foundations. Do we need physical presence (in church or at work) when we can have disembodied meetings via Zoom? Do we need physical touch? Are handshakes, man hugs and greeting one another with a holy kiss to be relegated to an ever-diminishing past? Last year I was walking down a wide path and came across a woman who shrunk back from me in horror, lest she come within 1.5 metres of me. I doubt this was because of the MeToo movement, but more likely the prospect of being in the vicinity of a possibly plague-carrying human being!

I find it interesting to reflect on what the Bible has to say about touch. It was not God who said ‘do not touch’ to Adam and Eve; it was Eve who added that embellishment to the command ‘do not eat’ (Gen. 3:3 and 2:17). It seems that there is a particular part of humanity which seeks to make ‘do not touch’ a key part of our rituals. ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ (Col. 2:21).

There is a time when it is right not to touch. Uzziah stretched out his hand and touched the ark unlawfully (2 Sam. 6:1-7) – and so he died. Sometimes in church it is not appropriate to greet someone with a hug, because their previous experience of physical abuse has made them understandably concerned about physical contact. But we should not make the exceptions the rule.

Jesus certainly not only knew the importance of touch. Imagine how it must have felt being an untouchable leper, touched by Christ! McCheyne told his congregation the story of the Moravian missionaries who went into a leper colony in South Africa. Every time one of them died, there were others waiting on the outside, prepared to go in. Because physical presence matters.

What about when people brought babies to Jesus to have Him touch them? Rather than dismiss that as pure superstition, Christ welcomed them – and rebuked His disciples for seeking to obstruct them (Luke 18:15). Contrast that with Disney World, which forbids children to hug Micky Mouse, but wants to encourage them to dissociate from their bodies in order to find their ‘real’ selves!

Think of Jesus appearing in the midst of the disciples after His resurrection: ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ (Luke 26:38-39). He is no disembodied Saviour. There is nothing more counter to the current anti-body ideology of progressivism than the fact that the Son of God had, and has, a human body.

When touch is only about sex we are back in pre-Christian pagan times. The Netflix series Black Mirror (not recommended) gives a bleak picture of a dystopian future where human bodies matter less than computer programmes. The popular Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus predicts a world in which humans will break free from our carbon-based biological chains and become pure mind. C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength warned us of the consequences of such illusory fantasies.

We need to learn again what it is to greet one another with holy kisses and unmasked faces. We need to understand and affirm that we are a physical as well as a spiritual religion. Of course, we reject all perverted and evil misuse of that for sinful purposes. But we don’t let the devil control the agenda.

When I was 21 years old, I wrestled long and hard with the decision to apply for training for the ministry. I received many answers and confirmations, but none more precious than the day after I appeared before the elders who agreed to put me forward. At the prayer meeting that evening, Mrs Ross, the minister’s wife, came up and gave me a hug and kiss and told me how joyful she was. It was a felt token from the Lord, and meant as much to me as anything else!

‘When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him’ (Acts 20:36-37).

David Robertson

David Robertson is the Director of the ASK project in Sydney and blogs at http://www.theweeflea.com

On purpose: faithfully engaging with life


WHAT ARE CHRISTIANS FOR?: 
Life Together at the End of the World
By Jake Meader
IVP. 192 pages. £16.99
ISBN 978 0 830 847 365 (hardback)

‘A revived sense of ourselves as embodied creatures – bodies of particular times and places who are nevertheless like all other human bodies, made in God’s image and for a purpose – will help address nearly every crisis we face as a church and a civilization today.’ (Karen Swallow Prior in the Foreword)

A clear sense of our identity and purpose is vital if we are to flourish and be fruitful as human beings. Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine covering the Christian faith in the public sphere. What are Christians for? explores who we are as Christians and what our purpose is in the world.

Speaking to Jake, I asked about what stimulated his writing.

‘I try to read pretty broadly and keep a lot of voices in my head … Reading people that you disagree with and taking their words at face value. I imagine myself in conversation with the authors. This is helpful for having a bassline honesty with ideas.’

This ‘promiscuous reading’ leads to making connections that might not be otherwise so obvious. For an example of this generous engagement with a broad range of thinkers, there is the fascinating chapter on ‘place’. It is not every day that one reads the names Jonathan Edwards and Pope John Paul II in the same sentence! That, however, is what the author manages in talking about the concept of ‘Mother Earth’.

A contemporary Lewis

Meader’s writing sounds like a contemporary C.S. Lewis delivering the broadcast talks that became the book Mere Christianity. Like Lewis, Meader does not engage in much direct Biblical interaction, but Scripture is clearly the superstructure that undergirds all his writing. I asked about the reason for this approach. Meader explained that he is writing for a generation who have been raised Christian but are disillusioned by the faith and offended by being told that they don’t know what the Bible says.

‘I need to find ways of talking about these things that hit them at such an angle that it piques their interest and makes them say: “Huh, maybe I need to look at this again. I’ve never heard that before.” Find a way to break through that assumed familiarity that causes a lot of people to not pick up a book, or to put it down before they understand it.’

Light touch

The author manages to cover a lot of ground in this book; using a light touch he deals with a variety of challenging contemporary themes in an accessible way.

These issues of race, sex, technology, the family, the environment, politics, and institutions are of vital interest to contemporary society. Sadly, viewpoints concerning these issues can become deeply polarised. Meador skilfully finds common ground on which they can be discussed. Meador combines storytelling, careful cultural analysis, penetrating insights into how Western society got to be where it is now, and tentative suggestions concerning what we can do about it.

This book breathes an air of both urgency and hope. Meader said that it is an urgent message because: ‘During church history regional churches die. Regions that were Christian (like North Africa), but are no longer Christian.

‘Church history tells a story of boom and bust. The booms come after times of widely shared trauma or pain or difficulty. What is distressing to me is that I feel we are going through a moment like that right now, but the church is in so many places so ideological, so yoked to certain political programmes that it almost chokes the voice of the Spirit.’

The hope comes from the desire to promote the practice of virtuous agency in the immediate settings and contexts that God has placed us. When dealing with real things that concretely exist in front of us, we need to learn how to respond with imaginative faithfulness. Here is a book that can help us to do that.

John Woods

John Woods, en Reviews Editor and Training Director, School of Preachers http://www.schoolofpreachers.org

Evangelical futures: Peace, be still!


If a few years ago you had said that some of the most prominent evangelical ministers in the UK and the USA would be exposed as spiritual and sexual abusers, few would have believed you, at least not about the extent of it. But it has happened, and it has happened in a context full of other pressures.

Church life has been greatly disrupted by the measures taken to contain the pandemic. Christians face marginalisation and increasing hostility toward their ethical convictions. Society itself, at least as perceived through the lens of the media and social media, has been convulsed by a concern with deep-seated systemic sins, and Christians have been divided in their response. Some have embraced the concern as vital for the church’s integrity and witness, others have opposed it as ungodly cultural Marxism. Christians have begun to look at one another like opponents rather than spiritual siblings.

The recent internal abuse scandals therefore come amid many other pressures. It is not an exaggeration to say that this has left many Christians feeling the ground shake under them. For some the abuse scandals are deeply and painfully personal: a trusted spiritual mentor has turned out to be an evil predator, serving his own desire for self-gratifying power rather than the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some have been caused to stumble.

In such circumstances it is easy to think that what we need to address the crises within the church is something new, something unprecedented. There might be many candidates. Perhaps we think we need a new set of leaders from different backgrounds, or a new untainted great leader behind whom to unite, a new Stott or Lloyd-Jones. Or maybe we think we need precisely the opposite – fewer prominent leaders of any sort and more spiritual democracy. Maybe we think we need a new pan-evangelical grouping or conference to replace the old ones, a new break-away Anglican church or a super-charged free church fellowship. Or again, perhaps we need the opposite: the abolition of pan-evangelical groupings and para-church organisations. The options are many and varied, but many feel the need for dramatic change, for something unprecedented to shake up our broken systems.

My purpose here is neither to deny the need for change nor to adjudicate between the different options. It is simply this: to point out that the Lord has given us what we need for our evangelical future, so that, despite painful circumstances, we can approach it with a deep underlying confidence.

Where dramatic change is needed, it is not something out of the ordinary. Where broken systems need to be reformed, we have, by the grace of God, the means to do it. This is exactly the kind of transformation that the Lord works all the time and has been working in the church since the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. God brings light out of darkness. He gives sight to the blind. He sets slaves free. He kills and makes alive. And not only at conversion, but every day. Even as we once died with Christ definitively, symbolised and sealed in our baptism, so we go on dying with him as we crucify the flesh in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 6).

In one sense this saving and sanctifying work is utterly astounding and unexpected. It is a unique work that only God can do. None of it is what we deserve or might reasonably expect from the Lord. Yet in another sense it is all the ordinary business of the kingdom of God. It is the work that God does in every one of His people, and has done since the conversion of fallen Adam.

Our hope is therefore in revolution, but it is the miraculous revolution that the Lord alone always does when He comes to save and to sanctify. The sufficient basis for our future is not some new, unheard-of leadership or scheme, but the Lord Himself and His ordinary work. He is the immeasurable basis of our hope, the only one of sufficient depth to satisfy all our longing, the only one powerful to change us and our churches.

The means by which He will minister His grace to His people in times of turmoil are therefore the familiar means. Any extraordinary measures are to be in addition to the ordinary, and they must not displace the ordinary as the focus of our hope. If they do, then should they fail – as they sometimes do – we will be left entirely hopeless. Placing our hope in a new set of leaders from different backgrounds will leave us just as vulnerable as we were when we hoped in the old set who have let us down. We must not hope in the human, other than in The Human, the Son of Man.

God is the only one who can and will put all things right. One of the saddest things is to hear victims despairing because they believe that their abuser has forever escaped justice because he has died, as if to be beyond the reach of human criminal prosecution were to be beyond the reach of Justice himself. There is indeed a divine mandate for the punishment of evil by the sword-wielding civil power (Rom. 13:1–7), but even such justice should not be the repository of our hope. The best human justice is only ever provisional, a this-time intrusion by the hand of His civil ministers of the perfect end-time judgment of God Himself. Where our hope is our heart will be, and if we put our hope in the wrong place our heart will be broken, again.

We must not set up the extraordinary against the ordinary as a repository of our hope. And yet we need also to give proper place to the extraordinary, for example to investigations of wrongdoing or changes of leadership. If you read me as seeking to downplay the need for such measures, you misread me. My point is that we must not think that our hope lies outside the ordinary activity of God.

How then can we keep our hope in God and the ordinary means while also engaging the extraordinary where necessary? We can do both by grasping that the extraordinary – properly construed and constituted – is really an unusual, peculiar outworking of the ordinary. For example, a proper call for the resignation of a leader should be construed as part of the call to repentance, the daily reality of the Christian life. An extraordinary inquiry into serious sin should be construed as an exercise of the ordinary power of the keys. Rather than seeing unusual measures as a turn from the ordinary, they should be understood as particular forms of the ordinary required in extreme circumstances.

And not just understood as such – they should as far as possible be constituted as exercises of the ordinary God-ordained means. For instance (I give away my ecclesiology here), an inquiry that may culminate in the use of the power of the keys should be constituted as an exercise of presbyteral authority, even if in some cases it must rightly be conducted by elders from the wider presbytery rather than from the congregation’s own session, and sometimes with wholly external professional help.

Again, a fresh commitment to recruit from outside our own familiar circles should be driven not by a sense of diversity as an end in itself (a secular value which invites the simple response ‘Why?’), but by the doctrine of God’s good creation of all humanity in His image, by the eschatological vision of every nation, tribe, people, and language gathered around the throne (Rev. 7:9), and by a confidence that the entire body has been gifted by God (1 Cor. 12:7ff.), not just ‘people like us’.

Tragically, there are circumstances in which the extraordinary activity required must involve authorities beyond even the wider church. If a crime is suspected, then the matter must be taken to the civil authorities. But even that action does not take us beyond the Lord’s provision, because He is the one who has ordained civil authority.

Construing and constituting extraordinary measures as forms of the ordinary expresses the fact that they are really implications of the ABC of the Christian life and of ecclesiology. Another way of putting this is to say that reasonable calls for change are really calls for nothing more than basic Christian conduct. For example, calling a leader to repent is calling him to do what he did when he became a Christian, and the thing he ought to be doing every day. This is why construing the extraordinary as a peculiar form of the ordinary is not downplaying the need for it. It is doing the opposite by pointing out that all we really need do is to behave in the way the Lord always calls us to behave. This raises the stakes: a refusal to do this is actually a refusal to live as a Christian.

The fact that these things are forms of the ABC of the Christian life in turn invites us to consider that we need simply to be better at the basics. If, for example, the phrase ‘power of the keys’ that I used above puzzles you, then it is time to revisit what Scripture teaches about church discipline. Where problems have arisen because church polity and discipline have been neglected, then they must be restored. If, under the pressure of crises, you have found yourself speaking to others in-person and online in ways that you would never have dreamed of before the crises, then you need to hear afresh Biblical warnings about the sins of the tongue. None of us is excused the basics of Christian living.

Extraordinary measures being forms of the ordinary also reminds us that the church is the primary location of change. The divinely ordained means of grace that grow God’s people in the likeness of His Son operate principally in the local congregation. Our hope must focus there. If we are anguished by abuse scandals, if we worry about the constituency, if we puzzle over the place of our para-church groups and organisations, we must not let any of that make us think that the answer lies outside the gathering of God’s people, as if our great hope might be some para-church organisation or movement. The gathered church is the earthly engine room for the ordinary business of the kingdom of God.

If you are feeling the ground shake under you, do not panic. In the midst of the storm Jesus says to the disciples: ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Mark 4:40). He says the same to you. Nothing that has happened or is happening around us exceeds the capacity of the ordinary means of God’s grace to save and to sanctify. We can and we should advance into our evangelical future with confidence in the Lord: ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isa. 30:15).

Garry Williams

Garry Williams is director of the Pastors’ Academy, formerly known as the John Owen Centre, which is part of London Seminary. He is also visiting professor of Historical Theology at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and Fellow in Theology and History at Greystone Theological Institute, London. 

Those who ‘rest in unvisited tombs’


In a recent statement regarding some of the cultural turmoil in North America, historian Owen Strachan, the Provost and Research Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas, made an observation about church history that I found quite surprising. He noted that ‘epic stands for truth … are usually taken alone, so high is their cost’.

I found it quite surprising because my own study of church history has given me a fundamentally different perspective. It is a perspective that I have learned inductively from church history (be it the Apostolic era with the Pauline circle, or the Cappadocian Fathers, or the Celtic Church, or the Reformers, or the Puritan brotherhood, or the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century), and it is namely this: God never does a great work in the history of the church except through a band of brothers and sisters.

This is true of all of the eras of church history just mentioned. The idea of one lone figure standing for truth against the minions of evil and the failure of like-minded men to stand with him is the product more of a reading of church history shaped by a ‘High Noon’ culture than the actual facts.

No small people

Professor Strachan’s statement is also redolent of the ‘great man’ theory of history, which was once put this way by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’. A better reading of church history, though, affirms that there are no small people within its pages.

In the late 1980s, I was asked to write a history of my local church, Stanley Avenue Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, which had a rich history. During the 1920s, this church was deeply involved in the battle against liberal theology at McMaster University, then in Toronto. Usually, when this story is told, the Toronto pastor, T.T. Shields, is seen as the great defender of the Faith.

But while I was writing the story of my church I came across a note from 10 March 1926. A young woman named Lottie Inrig stood at a business meeting and proposed to the church that they cut off funding to McMaster ‘until such time as there is no uncertainty as to the orthodoxy of the teaching of McMaster University’. The motion was carried.

When I first came to the church in 1974, Lottie was an elderly woman in her eighties, and sat quietly week by week in a pew a few rows behind where I sat. I had paid her little attention. When I read that note, I realized what an enormous debt I owed to Lottie Inrig, for by that action she helped to preserve the orthodox witness of Stanley Avenue Baptist Church and so ensured a gospel witness for the hundreds like myself who came to Christ in that church.

Indeed, without hundreds of Lottie Inrigs, T.T. Shields would have had no voice. To assert otherwise is to make church history a narrative of ‘celebrities’, when the reality is better expressed in these concluding lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (albeit she would have meant them quite differently):

‘That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.